Author of the book Collapse of Distinction, Scott McKain writes: “If you cannot find it within yourself to become emotional, committed, engaged and yes, fervent about differentiation, then you had better be prepared to take your place among that vast throng of the mediocre who are judged by their customers solely on the basis of price. It is the singularly worst place to be in all of business…”
It is time in higher education to put dedicated funding to institutional Public Relations strategies which focus on distinctiveness with clearly articulated goals that can actually be measured through results. A goal, for example, should not be as broad as: create awareness. And the primary measurement cannot be commingled with other operations, i.e. admissions conversion. Therefore, creating awareness is too broad a goal and increasing enrollment cannot be the primary measurement of achieving that goal.
Why does focus need to be on institutional distinctiveness now? The short answer is that it is no longer acceptable in current marketplaces to be a best-kept secret. An organization is only a best-kept secret if it chooses to be. It is time for institutional leadership to make the choice to bring their institutions from that place of “we do a lot of good stuff that is hard to put into words” to a much better articulated promise that is defined by their institution’s distinctions. That means all the many constituent groups within an institution must reach consensus about the institutional promise as demonstrated by outcomes.
Al Ries, with decades of experience in advertising and brand strategies, co-authored a book with his daughter Laura,
The Fall of Advertising and The Rise of PR and Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind where they write: “Advertising is not communications and new brands need to be launched with PR, not advertising…. PR builds brands. Advertising maintains brands. Advertising should not try to put a new idea into the consumer’s mind. Advertising should use ideas that are already there….. Our strategic approach to this is that you need to use PR, blogs and word-of-mouth first because the brand doesn’t have credibility to be believable.” Think back a few years: “The iPod didn’t get in the mind through advertising; the iPod got in the mind through lots of great PR, including lots of word-of-mouth. You get established in the mind and then you reinforce that image in the mind with advertising.”
If an institution wants to be known in today’s marketplaces, the word must get out out about what it actually does. Being something for everyone is no longer a viable option unless an institution can actually prove that it does that. The key ingredient to getting the word out is demonstrating distinctions that then allow an institution to take its place among others. That is not accomplished through typical advertising. Advertising is thought of by the public as slick and disingenuous. However, the PR that can help define distinctions is not the PR normally associated with colleges and universities. That PR is a strategy of sending out press releases. That PR assumes more than a small group of stakeholders cares about what the college or university is up to. More assertive PR strategies may involve actual purchasing of space or time to demonstrate institutional successes.
One of the very best ways to create and maintain best-kept secret status is to stay put. Colleges and universities need to get people out there. They need to commit funds to faculty travel to present and demonstrate expertise while also creating opportunities for people to come to their campuses to experience faculty expertise.
In an article, The Surprising Secret of Successful Differentiation, Dan Herman, PhD states: “…the secret of successful differentiation: you must think beyond the core benefits of your product category. That is very important to the consumer.”
Jack Trout, well-known in the field of marketing in higher education, agrees with Herman. Trout is given credit for developing the marketing concept of “positioning”. In a White Paper from Stamats he shares ideas from his book, Trout On Strategy and his co-authored book Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition. According to Trout, “Strategy is how you differentiate yourself from your competitors in the minds of your customers. That is the cornerstone of strategy….. There are lots of ways to differentiate yourself from your competitors. The most popular way is called ATTRIBUTE DIFFERENTIATION.”
Trout defines an attribute as a characteristic or distinctive feature of a person or thing. Attribute ownership, according to Trout, is critically important but there are a couple of rules he insists must be kept in mind: First, you cannot seek to own an attribute or position that your competitor owns.” He calls that a “me too” strategy. “Second, remember that the most effective attributes are simple and benefit-oriented.” As Trout explains it, there are some attributes that simply will not work in higher education. For example, some institutions try to differentiate on academic quality or great teaching. These attributes, quite frankly, are expected at a college or university.
There has been a lot written about differentiation and how colleges and universities might begin to execute on strategies to differentiate. In my mind an institution has a choice – be the in your face winner or be one among many. A lot of good institutions are in the game but they are not winning because they can’t bring themselves to shout out their winner status. You don’t have to be #1 to be a winner. Many colleges and universities somehow believe that if people know their name they know their game. That is simply not true in today’s marketplaces.
If one believes that simply being good or having a positive local reputation is all that matters s/he is missing the point. Today’s marketplaces – and the students and donors in them – will neither notice nor highly regard an institution that neglects to demonstrate pride or take time to tell its stories in compelling ways. To that point: Potential new students and donors will not seek you out because they are just too busy engaging with institutions that have sought them out.
Distinctiveness in the marketplace for colleges and universities is not something that just happens, it is something that must be intentionally crafted and maintained. The concept of “value” in today’s marketplace is more often measured by price than the opportunity. That is a significant change from even ten years ago. Thus, more than ever before and specifically because potential new students and their families group institutions first and foremost on what they believe they can afford or even worse what they perceive as the sticker price; the future teeters on a very slippery slope between mediocrity and distinction. Back to Scott McKain from his book Collapse of Distinction: “If you aren’t willing to create distinction for yourself in your profession – and for your organization in the marketplace – then prepare to take your seat in the back, with the substantial swarm of the similar, where tedium reigns supreme.”
Intellectual Property of Marcia K Nance, InterimWIN/2016